ESPN-980 Parts Ways With Mitchell, Koken

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to
Monday, May 11, 2009; 4:36 PM

For former Redskin Brian Mitchell, it was one of those "Merry Christmas, You're Fired" kind of weeks.

First, the good news: Mitchell learned last week that the Redskins plan to induct him into their FedEx Field Ring of Fame during a home game this season -- a well-deserved honor for one of the greatest special teams players in NFL history after 10 years of consistently distinguished service for Washington's favorite football franchise.

Good for B. Mitch, and good for you Daniel Snyder.

Now the bad: Mitchell also learned last week that his services were no longer needed on sports-talk ESPN-980, the station owned by Red Zebra Radio, which also happens to be owned by Snyder. Mitchell, hired long before Snyder bought the old WTEM last year, has worked at the station most of the last four years as a show host, most recently on the John Thompson show along with Al Koken.

Koken also was relieved of his duties two weeks ago, told, like Mitchell, that his contract was not going to be renewed. According to station sources, Thompson was not at all happy about losing his two mid-afternoon partners, both good friends, though there's not much he can do about it under the terms of his own hefty six-figure contract, which may also be in some jeopardy the next time it comes up for renewal.

Rick "Doc" Walker has been shifted to the Thompson show that runs from 2-4 p.m., leaving behind his relatively new partner, Kevin Sheehan, to go solo for now on the "Locker Room" show he and Walker had been hosting from 12-2 p.m.

Asked about Mitchell's dismissal, fellow former Redskin Walker took the high road, saying, "I'm an employee, I don't run the station. I don't know anything about the business side of it."

In an interview 10 days ago, Red Zebra President and CEO Bruce Gilbert declined to comment when asked about speculation that Mitchell also was not long for the radio airwaves. He did indicate that Koken's dismissal was more about the current business climate than it was Koken's on-air performance. Gilbert, Mitchell and Thompson could not be reached for comment.

It's no secret that AM radio in general is struggling and that ESPN-980 has been particularly weakened in a horrific advertising market that also has resulted in other cost-cutting measures. Ratings also are not particularly strong across the board for the station, but getting rid of two popular and often outspoken hosts hardly seems to be a formula for reversing that trend.

And despite his radio station's financial woes, didn't Snyder just sign Albert Haynesworth to a $100 million deal, with $41 million guaranteed, and D'Angelo Hall for $55 million, with $33 million guaranteed? Wasn't he also prepared to use many more millions on quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez? You think spending all that cash is the reason Koken and Mitchell won't be on the radio any more?

The Recession? Clearly not when it comes to the Redskins.

Letting hockey expert Koken go during the Washington Capitals current playoff run made absolutely no sense at all, considering he's the only station host who truly knows his way around the blue line and has been a supremely knowledgeable source of information on the team and the NHL for years, both on the radio and as a long-time television analyst.

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